Although both the Xylophone and the Glockenspiel belong to the same family of percussion instruments (both pitched percussion instruments), they have many differences (and similarities).
Both are melodic percussion instruments, and they might even be argued to look the same to the untrained eye.
Even the way of producing sound on both is essentially the same: striking bars with drumsticks.
Xylophone vs Glockenspiel: Differences
Key differences include:
Materials & Sound
Size & Price
The origins of the Xylophone date back to ancient Africa, with the oldest written account of the Xylophone dating back to the 14th century in Mali, Africa.
There were several types of Xylophones: some simple ones made of wooden bars without resonators, and other very complex ones that are framed and also have hollow gourds that function as resonators.
Within Europe, the first mention of the Xylophone was in 1511, and it was -unlike the modern instrument- a simple instrument with wooden boards, loosely strung together or supported on straw strings, giving rise to the name “straw fiddle.”
The instrument only began to gain recognition in the 19th century when composers such as Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Listz turned their attention to it. About that “premature” version of the Xylophone, Mendelssohn himself said:
“I must admit that the skill of this man surpasses anything I could have imagined, for with his wooden sticks supported on straw, his hammers being also made of wood, he produces all that is possible with the most perfect instrument.”
On the other hand, the Glockenspiel originated in Germany, where churches used a set of fixed bells by hand.
The bells were replaced by steel bars around the 17th century.
The earliest reference to a Glockenspiel-type metallophone was by Grassineau (in 1769), who referred to a “cymbal” constructed of bell metal bars and silver, with a compass of more than three octaves.
The bars, which were struck with “wooden knobs at the end of the sticks,” were arranged in the form of a keyboard “in the manner of a spinet.” The first use of a Glockenspiel dates from this period, in Handel’s Saul (1739).
2. Materials & Sound
The bars of the Xylophone are wooden, while the bars in the Glockenspiel are made of steel. Hence the name “glock” in German refers to steel, and “xylo,” in Greek, means wood.
The Glockenspiel is a Metallophone with tuned metal bars (usually of steel) of graduated length, arranged in two rows like the piano keyboard.
Like all mallet-instrument, its bars are executed with small hammers, generally built using flexible cane and plastic, rubber, or wooden heads.
In the Western orchestral Xylophone, the keys are arranged as in a modern piano keyboard; elsewhere, the fundamental arrangement varies.
In this sense, both instruments function in the same way, but what changes is the material from which the bars are constructed and, therefore, generate notably different sounds.
The Xylophone sound is considered to be high-pitched and short; the Glockenspiel has a higher pitch than the Xylophone due to its metallic nature.
In turn, the Glockenspiel enjoys maximum resonance, obtained by the bars supported on felt (or similar insulation) or otherwise suspended at the nodal points.
There is also a difference in their respective ranges. While the Xylophone can be between three and four octaves, the most common and popular being the 3.5-octave version, the Glockenspiel is usually between 2.5-3 octaves.
Finally, another difference between a Xylophone and a Glockenspiel: the first sounds an octave higher than it is written, and the second is generally written two octaves below where it sounds.
3. Cultural Relevance
Within the orchestral repertoire, the Glockenspiel has been used very freely. Some works in which this instrument has an important role include:
Dance of the Hours (La Gioconda) by Ponchielli,
The Bell Song (Lakmé) by Delibes,
Strauss’s Don Juan
Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite,
Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius
Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé
Vaughan Williams’s A London Symphony
Kodály’s Dances of Galánta
Copland’s Third Symphony
Britten’s The Prince of the Pagodas
By the end of the 20th century, the Glockenspiel was rarely used and was often replaced by mallet instruments.
On the other hand, beyond the aforementioned Romantic composers who set their sights on it, there is a vast body of work where the Xylophone actively participates.
Perhaps the most famous way the instrument is used is in “Danse Macabre” (1872), in which its composer, Saint-Saens, uses it to represent the rattling of the bones of the dead.
Beyond this, the Xylophone was also widely used by 20th-century composers, such as:
Mahler (Sixth Symphony, 1903-4)
Puccini (Madama Butterfly, 1904)
Strauss (Salome, 1903-5)
Elgar (Wand of Youth, Suite no.2, 1908)
Debussy (Ibéria, 1910)
Stravinsky (The Firebird, 1909-10)
4. Size & Price
Regarding size, there is also a notable difference between the two. The Glockenspiel is much smaller than the Xylophone.